Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Friends, Romans, fellow exploitation fans, were I to ask of you if a nudity-addled movie in which Rosalba Neri slinks around seductively could entirely be a waste of time, would I be right in assuming that your response would be somewhere in the region of an overwhelming “no”?

Thought so. And yet ‘Two Males for Alexa’ never fully lives up to its promise; doesn’t make – or even try to make – all it could of the material.

And were I to ask of you, ye same merrie bunch, if it’s ever anything less than fun to watch Curd Jürgens wolfing down a big slice of ham as he glowers moodily at the camera, would I be right in assuming that you response would be the equivalent of a large flag hung from your bedroom window printed with the legend “CURD FUCKIN’ JÜRGENS – YEAH”?

Again: thought so. And yet the colossus of Jurgens is threatened in scene after scene by the subsidence of Juan Luis Gallardo’s vacuous performance.

And, since I’m throwing out questions left, right and centre, here’s one more before we get to the meat and bones of this review: can a claustrophobic narrative of deception and sexual tension that locks its central characters in a single location and turns up the heat on them – literally and metaphorically – survive the inclusion, at the critical and most tense moment, of a series of nested flashbacks? You might be tutting and shaking your heads right now, maybe murmuring “Hmmm, probably not.” And I wouldn’t argue with you.

As you’ve probably divined from the above, I have mixed feelings about ‘Two Males for Alexa’ – mixed feelings that extend to the fact that Neri’s character is called Alexa-with-an-x in the goddamn title while the closing credits refer to her as Alecsa which not only doesn’t have an x, but is a stupid fucking spelling whichever way you look at it.

*takes deep breath*

*calms down*

*sort of*

And that’s not my only title-related beef. A Spanish-Italian co-production (that exists in different cuts for each territory), the title is either ‘Fieras sin jaula’ or ‘Dues maschi per Alexa’ – respectively ‘Beasts Without a Cage’ and ‘Two Males for Alexa’. The Spanish title is meaningless, since two of the principles end up locked in a sealed room (i.e. essentially caged), while the maschi = males translation of the Italian is literal and a better rendering of the title would be ‘Two Men for Alexa’. In the US, it showed up as ‘Two Masks for Alexa’ – a forgivable mistranslation (maschi mistaken for maschere) resulting in what I consider a better title. In Germany, it was released as both ‘Im Rausche der Sinne’ (‘In the Chaos of the Senses’ is the best I can do with that one) and ‘Bitterer Whisky’ which simply means ‘Bitter Whisky’ and not, as I originally thought, ‘Whisky That’s More Bitter Than’. Because that’d be silly. More bitter than what exactly?

Anyhoo, whatever title you care to hang on it, and whichever version you watch (the crucial difference is that you get more boob for your buck in the Italian cut), the basic premise of ‘Alexa’s Two Fellas in the Chaotic Senses of the Bitter Whisky’ is thus: while gold-digger Alexa (Neri) dallies with her stud muffin lover Pietro (Gallardo), her considerably older husband Lord Mannering (Jürgens) seethes with revenge while his daughter Catherine (Emma Cohen) frets that Alexa – her contemporary at university – is out to steal her inheritance. Catherine’s subplot is abandoned pretty quickly (in fact, her scenes seem to alternate between exposition and padding) as director Juan Logar focuses on the logistics of how Mannering frames Alexa and Pietro for his own death (that’s only a minor spoiler, btw) and leaves them, quite literally, to rot.

Only, as noted earlier, no sooner does Logar’s script put the lovers in a claustrophobic predicament than he embarks on a lengthy series of flashbacks that serve very little narrative purpose (the interrelationships and Alexa’s manipulation of Mannering to vouchsafe herself a life of luxury have already been established, and how she comes to meet Pietro is neither here nor there); moreover, when Logar finally hauls the film back into the here and now, Pietro’s reeling from a defeated escape attempt, the details of which are vague and the fallout (half the room is on fire) inexplicable. The psychological trauma the pair undergo – which should surely have been the dramatic dynamo of the film’s second half – is rushed and dependent entirely on hamfisted voiceover when so much more could have been communicated visually.

As ‘Two Males for Alexa’ stumbles towards its final moments, the script flirts curiously with the possibility of a final twist (one that, admittedly, would have been difficult as hell to achieve but utterly impressive if Logar had pulled it off) only step back from it and deliver an ending that I’m tempted to call arbitrary or banal but it isn’t even that. I’d be hard pressed, in fact, to call it an ending. The film simply stops and the end credits roll.

But still, it’s got Neri looking hot than hell on a day when there was a heatwave in the ninth circle, it’s got Jürgens alternately glowering and the screen and chewing on his dialogue like he’s not eaten in weeks, it’s got lifestyle porn aplenty (and, boy, does Logar take a twisted pleasure in subverting it), and it’s got a lounge jazz soundtrack that’s marvellously out of place with anything that’s happening onscreen at any moment. You pays your money streams for free and you takes your choice.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


I’d heard of ‘Troll 2’. Of course I had. What self-respecting trash fan hasn’t? But until know I hadn’t seen it. Not the opportunity wasn’t there, or even the inclination – after all, I’m always on the qui vive for Winter of Discontent fare. No, it was more the film’s reputation. A reputation so bad, and yet so wrapped up in adoration for its badness, that its decade-and-a-half-later making-of documentary film is titled ‘Best Worst Film’.

Me being me, I’m always suspicious when something is declared the best (or worst) of anything. Is ‘Citizen Kane’ the greatest movie ever made, was Shakespeare the greatest writer who ever lived, is the Beatle’s White Album as good as popular music will ever get? There are those – plenty of them, in fact – who will return a resounding “yes” to each of these, and argue passionately, vehemently, maybe even violently with anyone who dares iconoclasm.

Ditto with critical drubbings. Two of the biggest across-the-board critical takedowns of the last few years were Gore Verbinski’s ‘The Lone Ranger’ and Zack Snyder’s ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’, both of which I had a lot of fun watching.

In short, I simply didn’t believe that ‘Troll 2’ was the worst film ever made. I’ve seen Nico Mastorakis’s soul-destroying ‘Island of Death’, motherfuckers: I’ve seen Dario Argento’s bargain basement attempt at ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, I’ve seen Lucio Fulci’s vomitous ‘New York Ripper, I’ve seen Enzo Milioni’s jaw-droppingly terrible ‘The Sister of Ursula’. I have seen a hell of a lot of truly fuck awful movies. Damn it, I’ve seen ‘Quantum of Solace’, y’all.

Then I noticed that ‘Troll 2’ was due to be excised from Netflix imminently (by the time you read this review, it will probably have disappeared) and figured it was the universe’s way of telling me that the time had finally come to square up to ‘Troll 2’ and make up my own mind.

Where the fuck do I start?

Title’s a good place. ‘Troll 2’ is a film that features the world’s least scary witch and a bunch of shape-shifting vegetarian goblins and not a single everloving troll. Writer/director Claudio Fragasso – under the pseudonym Drake Floyd – was developing the film under the title ‘Goblin’ (y’know, the title that would have been the logical choice) but for whatever reason decided that an opportunity existed to cash in on John Carl Buechler’s 1986 opus ‘Troll’. Granted, ‘Troll’ had made $5million against its $1million or so budget, but it was neither a huge success nor enough of a brand name – particularly four years later when Fragasso’s effort went before the cameras – that hi-jacking its title makes much sense from a publicity perspective.

And it’s not like ‘Troll 2’ deals in goblins but just presents them as generic creatures that the undiscriminating audience could happily assume were trolls. Quite the opposite: ‘Troll 2’ takes every fucking opportunity to tell you that its antagonists are goblins. The film opens with a young boy, Joshua (Michael Paul Stephenson) being a read a fairy tale by the ghost of his grandfather Seth (Robert Ormsby) from a book with the word ‘GOBLIN’ in huge gaudy letters on the cover. Later, Joshua and his family – dippy well-meaning mother Diana (Margo Prey), grumpy disciplinarian father Michael (George Hardy) and attitudinous sexpot sister Holly (Connie Young, credited as Connie McFarland) – go on holiday to a shithole rural town called Nilbog, and just in case anybody didn’t get it, the town sign is shown in reflection, and just in case anybody didn’t get that, Joshua gasps and states in a flat inflection: “Nilbog – it’s ‘goblin’ spelled backwards!” Later still, when Joshua, with a little bit of help from ghost-grandpa, figures out that there’s something up with the townsfolk, he repeatedly informs his parents, “They’re goblins, they want to eat us.”

Which is only partially accurate: they are goblins, but they first want to transmogrify their human victims into plants because they’re vegetarians. This is actually one of the more logical concepts in Fragasso’s script. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s skip back to grandpa Seth and that fairy tale.

Sitting behind Seth’s interplay with the narrative as it unfolds, and the degree of corporeality available to him by which he can manifest (sometimes as a floating head, sometimes as an actual being capable of physically utilising objects around him) is what I can only assume is a complex set of metaphysical rules. The script, however, makes no attempt to define them and Seth’s sudden disappearances at crucial moments, not to mention the almost arbitrary time-bound nature of his supernatural powers (he can freeze time for thirty seconds to allow Joshua to figure something out, but no longer), ultimately seem as random and illogical as anything else that happens in the movie.

The fairy tale concerns a young man named Peter (Glenn Gerner) who becomes lost in the woods one day due to a fog that is so heavy he can’t see his way. He meets an enchantress (Michelle Abrams) who feeds him a green gloop that looks like regurgitated pea soup; he’s turned into a plant and becomes a light snack for the girl’s goblin besties. The film dramatises the story as Seth reads it out: the entire sequence is shot under an azure, cloudless sky, every tree and blade of grass in the woods dappled with the most glorious sunlight and occasionally, very occasionally, the special effects dude remembers it’s supposed to be foggy as fuck and a few wisps of dry ice float in front of the camera.

Keep the gloopy green stuff in mind. It’s all there is to eat in Nilbog (goblin backwards, folks!) when the family get there. The holiday is an exchange with a group of gruff, monosyllabic hillbillies, to whom Michael hands over the keys to his own house with nary a flicker of uncertainty. Turns out the hillbillies never even leave town anyway, but again we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s put the culinary non-delights of Nilbog on pause for a moment and consider the subplot wherein Holly’s putative boyfriend Elliott (Jason Wright) pursues her to the sticks in his family’s RV, taking some of friends – Brent (David McConnell), Drew (Jason Steadman) and Arnold (Darren Ewing) – with him.

Pop quiz, folks: imagine you’re a horny-as-hell teenager hoping to hook up with an attitudinous sexpot and you have access to an RV that you’re hoping will double as a passion wagon: do you light out on your own or invite three buddies along with you who your girlfriend-in-waiting can’t stand anyway? Yeah, thought so. Same here. Perhaps Elliott’s bros-on-tour decision is a tacit admission that things are doomed to fail with Holly, anyway. Maybe he was picking up on the gentle hint ultimatum she gave him before leaving to go on holiday: “It’s me or your friends,” followed by a knee in the gonads.

And indeed the first thing Holly does when she discovers he’s stalked her, bros in tow, is punch him in the face. (Remarkably, Elliott and Holly seem to end up together: I came away from the film sincerely hoping the lad never spills her drink, let alone looks at another woman!) At this point, the bros get split up: Elliott joins Holly and her family at the exchange house where they hold the most pathetic séance in the history of cinema, pleading for grandpa Seth’s help, while the locals gather outside to lay the most pathetic siege in the history of cinema.

Meanwhile, Arnold goes wandering off and meets a girl in the worlds who is being pursued by goblins. He gives the goblins a stern telling off and gets a javelin in his shoulder by way of response. In short order, he and the girl find themselves the prisoners of goblin queen Creedence Leonore Gielgud* (Deborah Reed); the girl is turned into green goo and eaten, while Arnold finds himself trapped in a plant pot as bark and twigs sprout from him. He’s soon joined by Drew. Drew’s taken a jog into town (evidently forgetting that an RV constitutes vehicular transport) to get provisions and been conned by the locals that his mates are waiting for him at chez Creedence. Notwithstanding that there’s no way on God’s green earth, given the time frame, that the locals could have encountered Elliott, Arnold or Brent, Drew takes this bit of information at face value. There’s a moment of hope as Drew tries to rescue Arnold. But it’s not to be. Creedence returns and deals with them. Mind you, the escape attempt was doomed from the outset on account of Drew trying to drag the flower pot across the floor instead of simply smashing it and encouraging Arnold to walk.

Having dealt with Drew and Arnold, Creedence uses the power of a magic stone (the script doesn’t really expand on “magic stone”, by the way) to transform from grey of pallor and dermatologically challenged to vamp in a low-cut dress and goes sashaying off to where the RV is still parked and seduces Brent with a corn on the cob. This narratively purposeless and utterly bizarre sequence (and I say that in the context of a film whose every single fucking scene could easily be described in just those terms) ends with a visual metaphor whereby popcorn stands in for ejaculation.

Okay, folks, I’ve just coasted past 1,500 words and this review has taken me to a place where I’ve used “popcorn” and “ejaculation” in the same sentence. Time to wrap this motherfucker up, methinks.

Having sat through the 93 minutes of ‘Troll 2’, I genuinely don’t know whether it’s the worst film ever made or not. It’s pretty damn bad – no argument there. The performances range from terrible to so far up the mountain of pantomime that the abyss of tragic anti-talent is visible from the peak. As an assemblage of moving images, it has been put together with an almost dedicated lack of care and attention. As an exercise in what-the-fuckery, it owns its notoriety. From “they’ve eaten her and now they’re going to eat me, oh my Goddddddddddddd” to Holly’s robotic dance, from the meat sermon to Creedence’s hand regenerating, from the hoe-down (where a rendition of ‘Red River Valley’ seems to last as long as ‘In-a-gada-da-vida) to the twist in the tale that can only work if you conveniently forget an earlier scene, you can pick for yourself the enough-to-make-your-head-explode moment that truly epitomises ‘Troll 2’.

For Fragasso has, with ‘Troll 2’, crafted a film in which nothing makes even a modicum of sense – narratively, logically or aesthetically. Things happen and people do things (often not even by way of reaction: in fact, there are umpteen moments where you would expect characters to react to events and they simply don’t) and the camera is pointed at objects and locations and it all probably tied together in some greater whole in the feverish depths of Claudio Fragasso’s mind, but on screen it just sits there. In all honesty, ‘Troll 2’ comes very close to being boring – not least in Deborah Reed’s tendency to turn each sentence of Creedence’s dialogue into several minutes’ worth of syllabic elongation, oddly placed pauses and demented eye-rolling – and it’s only gyrations of the WTF-o-meter that keep you watching.

*I don’t even want to try to unpack how all of those references fit together.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Shortly is the winter of our discontent

In time-honoured tradition (i.e. since 2010), the 13 For Halloween season segues into the Winter of Discontent, a two-month extravaganza of all things grubby, seedy and generally exploitative. And so it rolls this year. But after a short break.

Winter of Discontent 2018 will be opening its doors on the 11th November and, by way of apology for its delayed start, your humble curator will be running the retrospective till mid-January.

Some good cynical fare has already been selected. Here’s a little taster of things to come: it’s shaping up to be a giallo-centric winter and there’s a definite Rosalba Neri theme emerging.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: The Nun

The prologue to ‘Annabelle Creation’ takes place in 1943, with the remainder (i.e. the bulk) of that film taking place in 1955. ‘The Nun’ is set entirely in 1952: indeed the entire film takes place over two days. Which kind of makes ‘The Nun’ episode 1.5 in the ‘Conjuring’ multiverse.

This distinction is wholly irrelevant.

James Wan’s ‘The Conjuring’ was a pretty fucking great haunted house movie that proved he can be an astoundingly good director the moment you cut him loose from the fuck-awfulness of frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell’s scripts. ‘The Conjuring’ spawned two prequels: ‘Annabelle’, which was borderline terrible, and ‘Annabelle Creation’ which was damned good on a level almost equal to ‘The Conjuring’.

‘The Conjuring 2’ wasn’t quite as good as its predecessor but remains a rock solid and occasionally inspired haunted house movie with a cluster of good performances and a commitment to a grimly realistic urban aesthetic.

These distinctions are utterly relevant.

To put it simply: ‘The Conjuring’, ‘The Conjuring 2’, ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Annabelle Creation’ all take place within a post-war 35 year span, all are set in recognisable western locations (three of them in either urban or rural America, one partly in America and mainly in the economically strangled England of the late 70s), all are relatively realistic in their set-ups (i.e. they establish normal characters leading normal lives against unremarkable backgrounds) prior to the intrusion of the supernatural, and all of them are populated by characters who make logical and understandable decisions (in both of the ‘Conjuring’ films, the homeowners only take so much supernatural shit before they get the fuck out of their respective properties).

‘The Nun’ bucks the trend in every respect. It’s set in Romania. Its depiction of Romania is as if a Val Newton b&w chiller got jiggy with Michel Soavi’s ‘The Church’ and Lucio Fulci was called away from a screening of Powell & Pressburger’s ‘Black Narcissus’ to be the godfather. Its main characters are basically a Vatican hired gun and a yet-to-take-her-vows sister who has visions from God. The supernatural doesn’t need to intrude because it’s been strutting all over the screen waving its big Satanic dick in the audience’s face from the start, and Vatican McGuyver and Sister Plot Device abandon any semblance of logical decision making the moment they arrive at the spooky old convent, a modus operandi that achieves its apogee when they descend into the bowels of the edifice to confront an ancient and all-powerful evil and decide that the best way to defeat it is by splitting up and allowing the bad shit to feed off their respective vulnerabilities. Which is kind of like the Ghostbusters ditching the equipment, blindfolding themselves, and stumbling towards Mr Stay Puft and the Slimer clad in t-shirts emblazoned with ‘ALL GHOSTS ARE BASTARDS’ and making the wanker sign instead of the sign of the cross. Also, there’s some total bollocks about the blood of Christ that Dan fucking Brown would have been embarrassed to come up with.

Ladies and gentlemen: ‘The Nun’.

The film opens in full-on gothic style with two nuns – a stern mother superior type and a hot chick who looks more like a Victoria’s Secret model than a bride of Christ – facing up to some demonic something under the convent. The mother superior type is dragged into the stygian darkness by an unseen force. The hot chick flees back to her cell, but said something pursues her. Terrified, she loops a rope around her neck and pitches herself from a high window.

Cut to: Vatican City. Vatican McGuyver, a.k.a. Father Burke (Demián Bichir) attends a meeting at the Vatican. The other attendees include Cardinal Conroy (David Horovitch) and Bishop Pasquale (Michael Smiley) and they all speak wid Oirish accents and mayk wid da t’ousand yahrd stares and the audience would be forgiven if they expected the lot of them to cut loose with the effing and blinding like this was a ‘Boondock Saints’ spin-off. Hey, Fadder Burke, dis nun fokken trew herself out a winduh ‘n’ dat’s a mortal fokken sin sae fokk yersen off ta Rahmaynyah ‘n’ if ’tis the Divvel, kick his fokken ahrse. ‘N’ whoile yer about it, tek Sister Not Confirmed Yet wid yer on account of shhhh that’d be tellin’.

If the Catholic Church ever bankrolled an ecclesiastical reboot of ‘Mission: Impossible’, this would be the pre-credits sequence of the pilot episode.

So we swiftly find ourselves in Romania as Burke and yet-to-be-Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga). They team up with Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) – so named because he’s French-Canadian – who undertakes to drive them out to the convent. Weird shit ensues. That’s weird shit as in … well, I did the whole Val Newton-Michel Soavi-Powell & Pressburger-Lucio Fulci comparison a few paragraphs ago, and if that isn’t enough to indicate how bat-shit crazy ‘The Nun’ is, then I might as well throw in the towel and quit writing film reviews.

In some respects, it’s check-list stuff: Gateway to hell? Tick. Priest haunted by an exorcism that went terribly wrong? Tick. Visions of dead kid from aforementioned exorcism? Tick. Fog-wreathed graveyards? Tick. Premature burial? Tick. Fuckloads of crosses at wonky angles? Tick. Massively unsubtle music cues? Tick. Over-reliance on jump scares? Tick. Jaw-droppingly over-the-top supernatural smackdown involving a demon and the actual blood of Christ? Tick. Cynical coda that ties a supporting character in to the original ‘Conjuring’? Tick.

I’d be tempted to say that it’s filmmaking by committee, except that the committee in question must have been binge-watching 1970s and ’80s Italian horror movies and doing large quantities of hallucinogenics. You can level a lot of justifiable criticism at ‘The Nun’ – and you’d have to look elsewhere for someone to argue its case as one of the better entries in the ‘Conjuring’ cycle – but one thing you could never accuse it of being is dull.

Monday, October 29, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: Annabelle: Creation

The ‘Conjuring’ universe – because a group of interconnected films can’t be a series or a franchise anymore, oh no, it’s got to be a fucking universe – has, to date, notched up five entries of which, arguably, there has only been one real dud. That dud was John R. Leonetti’s ‘Annabelle’, and when I wrote about it for the twelfth entry in 2016’s 12 For Halloween, I concluded: “Remarkably, it made a fuckton of money at the box office – over $250 million from a budget $6.5 million – making ‘Annabelle 2’ an inevitability. David F Sandberg, whose feature-length debut ‘Lights Out’ did a similar cleaning up at the box office number, is attached to direct. Whether a narrative or psychological hook can be found that makes the Annabelle doll scary – pace the lifeless ventriloquist’s dummy in ‘Magic’, still the best scary doll film – remains to be seen, but the director trade-up is to be welcomed.”

I was right.

That Sandberg, on the evidence of the splendidly creepy ‘Lights Out’, would make a better film than Leonetti was a given. That it would be this good was something I didn’t see coming. Let’s face it: the odds were stacked against him. The Annabelle doll provides a moderately spooky pre-credits sequence to the original ‘Conjuring’ but there was little enough there to suggest an entire 90-minute prequel was required to fill in the backstory. And has there ever been a prequel that wasn’t an exercise in redundancy? Prequels are what happens when studios flog there cash cows so hard that there’s no mileage after in fucking sequels, for Christ’s sake! ‘Annabelle: Creation’ looked set to be a nakedly shameless exercise in milking it. How nakedly shameless? It’s a prequel to the fucking prequel! That’s how nakedly shameless.

And yet … and yet …

‘Annabelle’ fails because … well, it fails on many many levels, but principally it fails because of the nastily cynical Manson-like cult murders upon which it hangs its narrative hook – an aesthetic decision that’s made worse by the fact that it then goes on to rip off ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ for all it’s worth (‘Rosemary’s Baby’ director Roman Polanski’s then partner Sharon Tate was brutally slaughtered by Manson’s followers) – and because it can’t even be bothered to do anything challenging or remotely useful with the material, instead aiming low with the tiredest set of genre tropes imaginable. Moreover, there’s sweet f.a. in ‘Annabelle’ to suggest that an earlier chapter was required to set up the events that it portrays.

‘Annabelle: Creation’, against the odds, manages not only to bring a new provenance to the Annabelle mythology – an infinitely more effective and memorable one than in Leonetti’s film, too – but emerges as a very different beast aesthetically. Dialling back the setting to the 40s and 50s, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ feels different to the other episodes in the ‘Conjuring’, ahem, universe. Those films, grounded in the 70s, explored first a rural American haunted house, then a grimy English haunted house – no rambling gothic mansion for ‘The Conjuring 2’: instead a glum council house allotted to an underprivileged single parent family. ‘Annabelle: Creations’ returns to the American setting, but this time a dustbowl, dirt farm evocation of Nowheresville USA, all creaking front porches, shadowy barns, rusty pick up trucks and the glaring pitiless sun beating down on it all. Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography owes more to the western than the horror film in the exteriors, which is not to say that he doesn’t know how to manipulate negative space and play with focus and visually misdirect the audience in order to make the scare scenes that much more effective. He does indeed, and one of the chief pleasures of the film is how beautifully Alexandre’s visual sense gels with Sandberg’s mastery of slow burn tension and precision timing. For all that ‘Annabelle: Creation’ was doubtless conceived as a dollar-bottom-line profit-spewer, for all that it’s a prequel to a motherloving prequel, the craftsmanship on display is to be marvelled at.

Kudos, also, to the cast. Anthony la Paglia does his best work in ages as a grieving toymaker who, in the aftermath of his daughter’s death (depicted in a shocking blunt pre-credits sequence that has zilch to do with the supernatural), opens his rambling old house to a group of orphaned girls under the charge of idealistic nun Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman). Miranda Otto, as the reclusive matriarch, creates spiky but just-about-sympathetic character where she could easily have gone for the tragic, melodramatic Mrs Rochester type that the script wants to edge her towards; she’s better in this than anywhere else in her filmography. Talitha Eliana Bateman and Lulu Wilson, as fast friends sorely tested by supernatural malevolence, turn in the kind of work that would count as career bests from plenty of seasoned performers three or four times their age.

Narratively, things are kept simple. For a good chunk of the running time, little attempt is made to explain the happenings that centre around the Annabelle doll: weird shit just happens and man that’s all she wrote. And that’s all ‘Annabelle: Creation’ really needs to do in order to work: take a creepy old house and fill it with creepy unexplained happenings. That Sandberg is smart enough to build up the tension slowly but inexorably, and that his creative team get just about every durn thing right in terms of staging and production design, is just the cherry on the cake.

That he finally brings everything to the boil in an 18-minute set piece that plays the viewer’s nervous system like a piano concerto – a dark, Mephistophelean one, perhaps by Liszt – is where ‘Annabelle: Creation’ makes the leap from very good genre flick to bona fide great horror movie. That he follows this with two audacious flash-forwards to link up with that terrible opening to ‘Annabelle’ – does so without pissing all over everything he’d achieved in the preceding hour and three quarters – is quite the achievement.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: April Fool’s Day

How to rate 1986 in terms of horror movie? On the plus side, it gave us standouts ‘The Fly’, ‘The Hitcher’ and ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’, as well as the guilty pleasures of ‘Witchboard’, ‘Slaughter High’ and ‘The Wraith’. But it was also the year of ‘Killer Workout’, ‘Maximum Overdrive’, ‘Poltergeist II: The Other Side’, ‘Neon Maniacs’ and ‘Spookies’.

It was a year in which the stalk ‘n’ slash genre yawned with tiredness and sequels marinated in their own redundancy: in addition to the ‘Poltergeist’ follow-up, there was ‘Psycho III’ and ‘Demons 2’, while ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’ forewent the grainy, grimy, gruelling aesthetic of its predecessor and decided to be a comedy instead.

It was the year that gave us ‘Troll’ (which, four years later, would spawn an all-but unrelated sequel destined to be regarded as one of the absolute worst films ever made*) and cult trash-fests ‘Chopping Mall’ and ‘Class of Nuke ’Em High’.

It was an odd year for the horror fan and if said horror fan wanted to examine a film into which that oddness seems to have been distilled, they could do a lot worse than take a look at Fred Walton’s ‘April Fool’s Day’. It was Walton’s second feature film after ‘When a Stranger Calls’, made almost a decade earlier, and he went on to do very little else of interest; it has no big names in the cast; and its budget was a little over $5million. (When the film was remade, 22 years later, with Scout Taylor-Compton in the lead, the budget was still $5million!) For comparison, ‘Chopping Mall’ cost $800,000, and ‘Witchboard’ and ‘Slaughter High’ $2million apiece, while ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ – arguably 1986’s most critically acclaimed horror film – cost just $111,000. And I’m damned if I know what that $5million gave ‘April Fool’s Day’: apart from Charles Minsky’s often gorgeous widescreen cinematography (who I doubt was pulling down mega-bucks for what was only his second gig)**, it pretty much conforms to the production values of most films of its ilk, i.e. single location, cast of unknowns, and make-up work that is actually pretty shoddy; moreover, there are no special effects to speak of, no explosions, no car chases, no helicopter shots, nothing that would have been especially costly to stage. Boat hire: one ferry, one speedboat. Vehicle hire: couple of cars, pick-up truck. Snake wrangler. Swimming cozzie.

Wherever the money went, then, this is what we get in terms of audience satisfaction: an attractive young cast (even if most of the characters are douchebags), some nice rural location work, a script that trades almost solely in rug-pulls, bloodless death scenes (in fact, death scenes that are often cut away from at the crucial moment), very few extended set-pieces and little tension generated by those that do at least attempt to remember that the whole project is supposed to be a tense horror flick, and absolutely zero nudity. If this were a Winter of Discontent pick, it would have ticked none of the boxes.

Still, we’re a little more forgiving in the 13 For Halloween stable, so let’s take a paragraph or two to dwell on the incidental pleasures of ‘April Fool’s Day’. First, though, a quick plot synopsis:

The hilariously named Muffy St John (Deborah Foreman) lives in an ancestral pile on an island accessible only by boat – she stands to inherit the property on her 21st birthday – to which she invites a group of friends for the weekend. The party includes the bookish Nan (Leah Pinsent), the vampish Nikki (Deborah Goodrich) and her wiseass boyfriend Chaz (Clayton Rohner), girl-next-door Kit (Amy Steel) and her underachieving boyfriend Rob (Ken Olandt), and prissy ambitious type Harvey (Jay Baker). On the ferry over to chez Muffy, a bad-taste prank ends in a deckhand sustaining a gruesome injury and a pall settles over the weekend before the celebrations have even begun. Nonetheless, Muffy hosts an elaborate dinner party and proposes a toast to friendship – a toast that ends with a prank of her own, albeit a more good-natured one.

That night, as the various guests take to their rooms, they experience further pranks, some genuinely funny (Kit and Rob trying to turn off the lights in their room: the off switch for one light triggers another to snap on), others darker (the tape of a baby crying in Nan’s room, something that has an unpleasant connotation for her). The next morning, Muffy’s behaviour alters: gone, the gregarious hostess; in her place, a strange, edgy young woman who could almost be a different person. Then one of the guests goes missing …

The first thing ‘April Fool’s Day’ does is effect a nice balance between the expected tropes of the genre and a satirical sense of humour in its approach to the material. The cast, all in on it (and what “it” is, I’m honour bound to keep shtum), play wittily off each other and know just how far to go in terms of tipping the audience a wink. Secondly, it takes the prank-gone-wrong scenario that was already a staple of the stalk ‘n’ slash genre courtesy of everything from ‘The Dorm that Dripped Blood’ (1982) to ‘Slaughter High’ (released the same year as ‘April Fool’s Day’) and has fun using the concept not as a set-up but a series of variations on a theme. Thirdly, it monkeys with the audience’s expectations in a way that stalk ‘n’ slash films rarely do: usually, there’s a red herring or two, but ultimately the business at hand is less about whodunit than how bloodily they did it and who the final girl will be. ‘April Fool’s Day’, on the other hand, positively embraces the whodunit playbook (Muffy’s palatial pad is described as being like “something out of Agatha Christie”), even if it does so purely to set up its final rug-pull.

Ah, yes. The ending. The thing that I can’t tell you about without going full speed ahead for Spoiler Island. Let’s just say that the clue’s in the title. Whether it works for you or not is, I suspect, entirely dependent on the mood you’re in. I watched the film this afternoon, indoors and warm while rain beat against the window and the wind howled; I sank a pink of the Old Crafty Hen while I watched it. My general mood was a sense of oneness with the world and everything in it, and I enjoyed the cheekiness of the ending. Had I been in a more critical mood – or a grumpier mood – I could well have hated the ending. Most critics won’t admit to that degree of subjectivity, would rather you believe that they uphold a rigid set of objective perameters. Movies like ‘April Fool’s Day’ poke fun at such fallacies.

*Let’s review that motherfucker for Winter of Discontent, shall we?

**Minsky went on the lens several dozen films as well as directing for film and TV. In addition to ‘April Fool’s Day’, his CV includes ‘Valentine’s Day’, ‘New Year’s Eve’ and ‘Mother’s Day’. He’s obviously the go to guy for films based on calendar dates.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: Wish Upon

What does it take to elevate a piece of genre boilerplate – or, in the case of tonight’s offering, a piece of teenie genre boilerplate – from an undemanding watch over a couple of glasses of wine to something that gets its very own review on The Agitation of the Mind?

Is it the way in which all the familiar tropes are laid out with the care and enjoyment of one who clearly loves the genre but hasn’t necessarily distinguished himself within it? (Step forward John R Leonetti of ‘Mortal Kombat: Annihilation’, ‘The Butterfly Effect 2’ and ‘Annabelle’ not-quite-fame.)

Is it the winning performance by a leading lady who gives her all and in doing so transcends a script chicaned with twists and turns that you can see coming like an aircraft carrier on a duckpond? (Step forward Joey King, who at the age of 19 has more acting credits to her name than most septuagenarians who have been in the business all their lives. Though, granted, most septuagenarians don’t have ‘Ramona and Beezus’ and ‘The Kissing Booth’ on their CVs.)

Or is it because it’s closing in on All Hallow’s Eve and your humble blogger needs to bash out the last few 13 For Halloween reviews pronto pronto?

A little bit of column A, a little of column B and a little bit of column C, as it turns out.

‘Wish Upon’ starts with a prepubescent Clare Shannon (Raegan Revord) go cycling off down a suburban street with a distinctly Haddenfield vibe, under the watchful eye of her mother Johanna (Elisabeth Rohm). Johanna’s just dumped a suspicious looking package in a bin and withdraws wearily into the house. By the time Clare reaches the end of the street and pedals back, Johanna has taken herself off to an upstairs room, thrown a rope over a ceiling beam and goodnight Vienna.

Fast forward a decade or so and Clare (King) is the unpopular white trash girl at the kind of high school that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be in ‘Carrie’ or ‘Clueless’. Her best, indeed only, friends are June (Shannon Purser) and Meredith (Sydney Park) who are also outcasts (seemingly based on hair colour and skin colour respectively). Clare’s frustrated musician father Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe) makes a living foraging for scrap metal or resaleable items from peoples’ trash, kind of like a less phlegmy Albert Steptoe and HOLY FUCK, WHEN DID RYAN PHILLIPPE START PLAYING DAD ROLES? CHRIST ALMIGHTY, THAT MAKES ME FEEL OLD! Oh, and there's Sherilyn Fenn, the va-va-voom sex symbol of my adolescence, playing the kindly middle-aged neighbour, so just pass me my free fucking bus pass already.

I SAID Clare’s dad is a scrap merchant and one day he brings home a puzzle box for her that’s covered in Chinese ideograms. Long story short, the box grants her seven wishes. Small print: blood price required for wishes one to six, the owner’s soul in return for the seventh. And guess what, the blood prices are always paid by those closest to the owner.

So what we have is a melange of ‘Hellraiser’ (box that releases something unpleasant), ‘The Box’ (you get a good deal, someone else gets a truly shit one) and ‘Final Destination’ (in the way that ‘Wish Upon’ sets up its death scenes, most transparently in a roadside wheel change intercut with some business in an elevator), with a little bit of ‘The Babadook’ (the puzzle box, like the pop-up book, seems impervious to getting chucked away) and ‘The Unborn’ (curse born of wartime trauma) thrown in for good measure. You’ll probably identify a couple of dozen other points of genre reference when you watch it.

So why should you watch it? Well, it’s Leonetti’s best film to date, and while I realise that’s not exactly saying much, it does at least point to the possibility of better things from him in a way that everything else on his filmography most definitely doesn’t. And it’s got an attractive young cast who engage with the material and don’t condescend to it, or the audience, in terms of their performances. Also, it doesn’t break its own rules like, say, ‘It Follows’ did. And it doesn’t allow its characters to dodge the inevitable. As much as a lightweight flick like ‘Wish Upon’ can be said to be about anything it’s about the price that has to be paid, never mind how shallow the pleasures that were taken along the way and how ultimately transient they were.